The Changing Face of Terrorism: Al-Shabaab and Westgate

On Saturday, September 21st, the upscale Westgate Mall – frequented by expatriates living in Nairobi – was attacked and seized by the Somali-based militant Islamist organization, Al-Shabaab.  Reports suggest the militants entered the mall shouting in Swahili that only Muslims would be allowed to leave, tossing grenades “like maize to chickens” according to one man at the mall.  At least 67 people — including British and American nationals— have been reported dead.  The attack on Nairobi has left the city, the nation, and entire region of east Africa in shock, causing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to publicly proclaim, “We have overcome terrorist attacks before. We will defeat them again.”

Image courtesy of valentinastorti, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of valentinastorti, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Al-Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is a coalition of Islamic forces that have, for more than five years, controlled much of southern Somalia.  In lieu of any official, centralized government, Al-Shabaab has enforced Sharia law in the region, creating a facade of legitimate governance in a country crippled by political instability.  The group first gained control of the region as the youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group of Sharia courts formed to oppose the Transnational Federal Government of Somalia.  Driven by the notion of a “Greater Somalia”, that is, a nation in the Horn of Africa including parts of Kenya and Ethiopia that are home to ethnic Muslim Somalis, Al-Shabaab launched an invasion on the Ethiopian territory of Ogaden.  While the ICU had a vision for domestic control of ethnically Somali lands, a growing faction within Al-Shabaab began supporting the pursuit of global rather than domestic jihad.  In 2012, Al-Shabaab split ties with the ICU, choosing instead to act as a unit of al-Qaeda, in large part due to this newly shared global vision.

To many, these attacks may seem unfortunate but unsurprising for an east Africa riddled with social and political volatility.  Yet, many fail to recognize that Kenya is perhaps the greatest bastion of political stability and security in the region.  This attack, despite Kenya’s border with Somalia and its history with Al-Shabaab, was unlike most terrorist ploys in recent years.  This attack is indicative of a shift in the goals and actions of fundamentalist terrorist groups.

What is most telling about this attack is what U.S. counterterrorism intelligence is investigating: three of the gunmen might be American citizens.  The world’s largest Somali population outside Mogadishu is not in neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia but in the U.S. state of Minnesota.  80,000 ethnic Somalis live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where, for over half a decade, community leaders have warned of Al-Shabaab recruitment in local mosques.  Just this year, Al-Shabaab released “Minnesota’s Martyrs: The Path to Paradise”, a documentary that follows a group of Somali-American through training and ultimately dying for their jihadist cause.  Though it may be upsetting to learn that radicalized indoctrination occurs in many Western countries, this form of recruiting in the global jihadist movement is becoming increasingly common.

Just a few months prior to Westgate, two Chechens living in the United States carried out a bombing that left the city of Boston shocked.  The younger of the two, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, grew up in Boston, attended the University of Massachusetts, and according to those who knew him, was “a typical American kid”.  His actions, however, certainly do not ring true to the ideal of homegrown, American values.  In 2011, Michigan-born Colleen LaRose was found guilty of providing material support to terrorists and plotting to kill a European artist who had drawn cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, an act forbidden by the Sunni sect of Islam.  In 2010, a Pakistani-American – Faisal Shahzad – was arrested for an attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square.

The actions of these American citizens show us that terrorism is not an act of “us versus them”.  Instead, these Americans demonstrate the changing face of terrorism.  Though the mall siege in Nairobi may seem like an isolated event in east Africa, it proves that terrorism cannot be contained or traced back to any country or group.  Indeed, acts of terrorism are international in scope and inherently unpredictable.  There is no longer a “one size fits all” profile of a terrorist based on either nationality or skin color.  The initial strategy of the “War on Terror” was to target certain ‘organizations’ and certain ‘communities’.  So far this strategy has proven to be nothing more than a short-sighted justification for racial profiling.  As terrorist recruitment strategies evolve, past preconceptions of terrorism must be thrown out to adapt to this ever-changing reality.

If we have learned anything from high profile acts of terror, it is that their actions are not traditional by any means.  Terrorism is not a conflict among nations, where issues can be resolved in rooms filled with heads of states and their army of intelligence experts, or on battlefields, with artillery and armed forces.  Acts of terror are orchestrated by non-state actors bound to a cause through ethnicity and religion, where attacks are unprovoked and intended to chip away at the psyche of the average mall-goer or American worker and their belief in protection from radicalized forces.

The shooting in the Westgate mall was not an attempt to gain important Somali territory, nor was it a “struggle in the way of Allah”.  Al-Shabaab does not have the administrative capacity to do any of these things.  As a group, it is rapidly losing importance and power and, in its nebulous form of organization, can do nothing more than fear monger.  While Kenya’s problems may seem like a distant and irrelevant place for many of us in the West, we must pay attention.  Recent acts of terrorism indicate that where and why terrorism takes place is becoming less and less explicable.  Each act is isolated, in which there is no greater goal than to evoke emotions of panic and horror anywhere and everywhere.  If Al-Shabaab, Jemaah Islamiyah, or even al-Qaeda ceases to exist tomorrow, a number of small but radicalized groups are able to carry out equally terrifying mass murders the next.

 If we continue to view terrorism in the context of traditional wars, we will constantly be at a loss.  Unpredictable attacks will increasingly become the norm until politicians and policymakers accept that going after individual groups and important figures within them will not solve the inherent problem of terrorism.  Nowadays, all it takes is a fledgling group with deep convictions to execute acts that can terrorize the world.

3 Replies to “The Changing Face of Terrorism: Al-Shabaab and Westgate”

  1. Rohan,

    An interesting perspective and very relevant.

    The challenge most governments will face is how to restrain these splintered fragmented isolated incidents which leave an idelible mark but are going to be difficult to pin down and control!

  2. Rohan, an incisive and nuanced analysis of the war on terror. As far back as 1st century A.D., the Zealots of Judea are known to have used the tool of terror in forcing their might. Where does the solution lie? Better governance? Appeasement of fringe groups? Tighter immigration laws? Not sure. In a world with blurred borders, the challenge lies in addressing angst of varying hues with constantly shifting goalposts. Not an easy battle to win.

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